Cleaning your Hair with Conditioner, Does it Really?


If you have been natural for longer then 1 week, I am sure–no I am absolutely certain that you have heard someone say “Co-wash“. If you were clueless about the whole natural thing like I was, then you probably thought this was how someone with an accent says “cold wash”.   A co-wash is easy to do, just wash your hair with conditioner instead of shampoo.  It sounds really bizarre, and it may take you some time to wrap your head around how is it that a product that is meant to restore and add moisture to your hair can also cleanse your hair at the same time.

It really depends most on the ingredients in the conditioner and the state of your hair at the time you plan to use the conditioner.  Let’s break down both.

Cleansing Ingredients in your Conditioner

There is actually science and logic to support this hair care regime. Shampoos are typically composed of about 10-15% detergent. They use surfactants like Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate which do an excellent job of cleaning and removing oil from hair.
Conditioners also have detergents, but they are different than those found in shampoos. They use cationic surfactants (or quats) which have the tendency to stick to the hair, which is how they provide conditioning. Common quats are Cetrimonium Chloride or Distearyldimonium Chloride. They’re used at levels between 1% and 5%. Although they do stick to the hair, these ingredients also have the ability to cleanse the hair, which is why the no-poo washing system can work.¹

If you turned your conditioner over you may find the following ingredients amongst a list of oils and other hard things to pronounce:

glycerin, cetyl alcohol, behentrimonium methosulfate, cetearyl alcohol, stearamidopropyl dimethylamine (SADMA), and amodimethicone

These are very common conditioner ingredients. Here’s what they do: Glycerin can provide moisturization in a leave on product, but it doesn’t do anything for hair when it’s rinsed out. Cetyl and cetearyl alcohol are thickening and emulsifying agents are are used to make a conditioner rich and creamy. Because they`re oil soluble they could, in theory, help lift some of the sebum of your hair and scalp. Behentrimonium methosulfate, SADMA, and amodimethicone are very effective conditioning ingredients because they deposit on the hair.²

How dirty is your hair?

If you’ve recently used gels or products with silicones, petroleum, mineral oil, and/or lanolin, then you may want to use shampoo to effectively cleanse your hair, because conditioners just don’t have the same cleansing detergents as shampoo.  If you did decided to use a conditioner only method after using a combo of these ingredients, you could end up with buildup, itchy scalp, lack luster hair and your hair may even feel weighed down.

However, if you’ve managed to avoid all of these ingredients, rest assured, that conditioner alone will do the job.  You can use any conditioner you prefer.  Some of my favorite conditioners are Design Essentials Natural Moisturizing Conditioner, Giovanni Smooth as Silk Deeper Moisture Conditioner, Herbal Essence Hello Hydration Conditioner, and Shea Moisture Yuccaa & Baobab Volumizing Conditioner.

Why not just use shampoo?

Shampoos have harsh detergents that can leave the hair stripped and dry. Depending on the products you used, you may feel the need to shampoo to thoroughly cleanse your hair.  I find that shampoos labeled “moisturizing” work great in my hair even if they contain sulfates. Using shampoo or no-pooing is a personal preference based on your hair care needs.  When I first went natural I used shampoo every other wash day. The wash days in between, I used conditioner only.  I also co washed mid week to give my hair a moisture boost. There are many shampoos on the market with absolutely no sulfates, these are great alternatives to shampoos with sulfates. It’s your hair, use what you want. Just be informed.

Source¹ Source²

About Jenell B Stewart

Jenell Stewart MS, the founder and editor in chief of the award winning website KinkyCurlyCoilyMe.com dedicates most of her free time educating and uplifting women with natural hair by way of her extremely popular website and YouTube channel. Jenell has been featured in Essence Magazine, Black Enterprise.com, and starred on the Dr.Oz television show as a Beauty Expert. In 2012 she was named one of Essences top Instagramers and that same year KinkyCurlyCoilyMe won an award for “Favorite Website” of the Natural Hair Community.
  • http://www.facebook.com/kennedywife23 Dana Kennedy

    good read!! learned a few things.. thanks!!

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      Thanks love. Care to share what you learned?

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      Thanks love. Care to share what you learned?

  • Tazzee

    I use gels regularly on my hair to prevent frizzing so I shampoo at least once a week. But when I co wash, I love using Herbal Essence Hello Hydration. I shampoo with the Shea Moisture line, I have all three so I choose the shampoo depending on my hair needs that day. Even when I shampoo, I still use HE for conditioner.

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      Those are ALL my faves!

  • Del

    Awesome – I actually went the no-poo route when I first started transitioning because I did not want to keep using my shampoo, which had sulfates in it. So – I was actually trying to save money, truly. :-) I did notice, however, that only using conditioner to cleanse my hair had great results because I would use the same conditioner to deep-condition my hair.
    Oddly though, now that I am fully natural, I find that I do still need the shampoo to fully cleanse my hair. I use curl creams, moisturizers, and oils (coconut and olive oil), and I find that just doing a co-wash doesn’t always get everything out of my hair. So, I use shampoo – but only moisturizing, sulfate-free shampoo. I am currently using Organix Nourishing Coconut Milk shampoo, and it has been a dream! I use the conditioner by the same company, and it is so awesome on my hair – leaves my hair feeling soft and healthy!
    BTW – my shampoo has surfactants in it, it was great to read about this on here and have a better understanding of what they do! :-) I am so thankful for your site, Janell, and I have become more confident about my hair and what I can do with it since joining your site. I am so happy that I happened to be sick during spring break and needed something to do! :-)

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      Youre so very very welcome!
      I love Organix Coconut!!!! They were one of the first products I used in my hair when I BCd.
      Don’t they smell amazing???

      Thanks for the feedback and thanks for joining us in your free time. We have weekly giveaways– they are my way of giving back to you girls. Make sure to sign up!

  • Cyn

    Personally, I have not found a shampoo that will not leave my hair feeling dry, however big the words “MOISTURISING” are on the label. What I do is mix my conditioner with bi-carbonate of soda and hey presto! Bob’s my uncle. I just took down my braids after a month of no washing (bad, I know) and I put the mixture on my roots, gently scrubbed, then smooshed it down the hair shafts. And my hair was clean afterwards. I kid you not.

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      Thats interesting. Which shampoos have you tried?

    • Marie Arceneaux

      Please advise the amount of soda and moisturizer used to cleanse and moisturize your hair.

  • http://twitter.com/naturalhairads Tiffany

    I’ve only tried to do the co-wash method a couple of times. My hair never really came out well when I did. Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the ingredients, as you’ve suggested.

    And especially now that I have color in my hair, I’m very weary of doing something that could be too drying for my hair. How do people typically style their hair after co-washing?

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      Replace the words co-wash with shampoo and do to your hair exactly as you would if you shampooed.
      For me, I follow my co-wash with my moisturizing regimen, then set my hair in twists or braids.

  • Arlenamay86

    ahhhh, thanks for breaking down the whole ”co-wash” thing!!!

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      You’re very welcome. Do you co-wash?

  • valeriesmith15

    I have been washing my hair with conditioner for the last two weeks now and I found that my hair has a lot of shine, especially as I am coloured. I plan to shampoo my hair only once a month. Plus I have learned to put my hair in very simple styles.  I also can wash my hair daily without using shampoo.

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      Good stuff!
      At the beginning of my journey I shampooed about 1-2x a month, but then I started every week due to my lifestyle.

  • Monique Bennefield

    Jenell do you co wash your twice a week?

  • Monique Bennefield

    Jenell do you co wash your twice a week?

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      Hey love,

      When I first big chopped I would cowash on Wednesdays and Saturday because I hardly used shampoo. I don’t have the time in my schedule to cowash mid week.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1788136110 Shay Bell-Allen

    Great article!  I’ve recently started cowashing and love the results but it wasn’t until i stopped using shampoo completely for about two months.  I started using bentonite clay instead of shampoo and it cleans my hair and scalp so well with great defined curls but I ran out one day and decided to just do a cowash with VO5 moisture milks passion fruit and OMG my hair wash so soft and shiny.  So for this Texas heat I’ve been doing them twice a week.

    • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

      Cowashes are great. I haven’t done one in almost a year. But I really should start back.
      I haven’t used bentonite clay. What made you start using it?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1788136110 Shay Bell-Allen

        I was looking for something that was less stripping for my hair and noticed that some girls were using it for there hair.  I was using it for facials and decided to try it out and LOVE it.

        • http://kinkycurlycoilyme.com/ Jenell : BlakIzBeautyful

          That’s awesome.
          Where do u get it?

          • Audrey

            Yes….I’ve been wondering the same thing for awhile now….where do you get bentonite clay?

          • queenbee9

            indian healing clay (Aztec brand) is at whole foods it is pure bentonite clay

  • Danielle

    I really want to start co-washing. but very confused. HELP!! lol. Is it alright to sleep with an oil overnight and then co- wash in the morning? Do I detangle before I co- wash? And do i use a deep conditioner after i co-wash? Thank You.

  • Sharon G

    I love your videos and website. As a woman in my 50′s and have been natural for three years, I have learned so much from many, many, enpowering women like yourself. Thanks so much for that! What are your feelings on using Cleansing Cremes! I have used them and love them! How often do you suggest I use them and do you have product suggestions. I have used Miss Jessie’s Creme De La Curl, Kera Care Cleansing Creme, and Hair Rules Daily Cleansing Cream. I get great results from them. Plus they have a lot of essential ingredients.
    Thank You!

  • cuddlebug6

    I love AVEENO Sulfate free 2 n 1 shampoo and conditioner when I need to clarify. I use it probably 2x per month. The other times I just co-wash with organix deep conditioner. I spritz my hair with water, apply deep conditioner, seal with castor oil and cover my hair with a shower cap and sleep in it. I rinse the next morning and apply cantu leave in repair cream and seal with castor oil. I like to keep it simple.

  • CBW chinabestwigs

    Keep your hair clean. Hair tangles when dirt and sweat build up, wash your hair after exercise, swimming etc. Brush your hair and remove all tangles before washing it. Wash your hair going in a downward motion. Use a good quality shampoo, your stylist can advise you what product is best for your hair. When lots of water is added at once to very dry hair, hair can swell up and tangle. Gradually wet the hair and brush gently before you completely wash it. This is more common with less expensive extension hair.